One happy side effect of the ongoing vogue for the blue-eyed soul of Amy Winehouse, Duffy et al. is the appearance of several other artists who might otherwise have been overlooked. Naomi Shelton paid her gospel dues in an Alabama church and, later, on New York's soul circuit, and has the gritty conviction in her voice to prove it, sounding not unlike a long-lost cousin of Mavis Staples.
The Daptone label's devotion to the classic soul sounds of the 1960s and '70s ensures warm analogue sound, and arrangements that adhere strictly to the conventions of the period. But even if the material on Shelton's debut album features two traditional tracks (“Jordan River” and “He Knows My Heart”) and a respectful take on Sam Cooke's evergreen civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the five new songs by Bosco Mann (a.k.a. Gabriel Roth, Daptone's co-founder) offer a contemporary, soulful spin on gospel. The title track updates the question/answer dialogue of the well-known spiritual “Sinnerman” and on “Am I Asking Too Much?” Shelton casts a weary eye over the Iraq war, healthcare, hunger and the drugs trade.
The Gospel Queens are a trio of backing singers who keep up a near constant call-and-response with Shelton, ‘shoop-shooping'in a manner that recalls Aretha Franklin's peak years at Atlantic, and on “He Knows My Heart”, we get to hear their individual voices. Cliff Driver's sturdy piano and Jimmy Hill's ruminating organ form the backbone of the group's sound, with electric guitar by Tommy Brenneck and bass from Mann; they both also play with Sharon Jones'band The Dap-Kings, who backed Winehouse on her last album. And if Jesus is the other abiding presence on this record, you don't have to be a believer to appreciate it.